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May 31st, 2016:

My vision for Metro: Buses

HoustonMetro

I’ve said before that I would have some suggestions for new Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and her team as they take their places. This post is where I start sharing those suggestions. The idea is to focus on proposals that I believe are doable in the current political and economic climate, in the short term as well as in the longer term. Ideally, all of these things could at least be begun by the end of Mayor Turner’s second term in 2023. Some of these things can be done by Metro on its own, but many will require at least some level of cooperation with one or more other agencies. in all cases, the goal is to get more people to use Metro. As always, your feedback on these ideas is welcome.

Let’s start with the backbone of the system, the local bus service. The good news here is that Metro’s current bus system map is basically as good as it’s going to get to maximize ridership, which by the way continues to improve. The bad news is that this means Metro has less control over what it can do to improve the bus system further. But the other good news is that the means by which they can improve the system further, and thus get more people to use it, are clear and easy to understand.

Really, it all comes down to two things: Sidewalks and bicycles. The new bus system does a really good job of getting you from one neighborhood or part of the city to another. But you still have to get yourself to your bus stop from your point of origin, and from your bus stop to your final destination. When your bus stop is on a well-maintained sidewalk, with safe street crossings, this is easy. When it’s not, it’s a strong disincentive to use the bus in the first place. The 85, for example, is a frequent route that runs along Washington Avenue, a part of town with a lot of destinations close together and a shortage of parking. It also has some of the crappiest sidewalks for a neighborhood that really ought to be pedestrian-friendly. People won’t take the bus if they think it’s not easy to get to or from the bus stop. Bad sidewalks are a big hindrance to bus ridership.

To their credit, Metro knows this. I feel reasonably confident saying that the Metro board will do what it can to work with the city of Houston as it plans out its Rebuild Houston projects (assuming the Supreme Court lets it), which now that the city operates under Complete Streets guidelines, means that sidewalks will receive proper attention. The budget that Council just adopted includes Metro money for each Council district earmarked for infrastructure repairs, so those pieces are in place. Metro also needs to work with Harris County, especially now that the Commissioner of Precinct 1 is and will be willing to work on infrastructure inside Houston, with the various TIRZes, HISD and the other school districts, and any other entity that is able to put up a few bucks to re-pour a sidewalk. Harris County Commissioners Court – all four precincts – really needs to be in on this, since it was the county’s insistence that the 2012 sales tax referendum bar using marginal revenues for light rail that helped lead to the bus system re-do. Put some skin in the game, Commissioners Court. These are your residents, too.

As far as bicycles go, we know that more and more people are riding their bikes to bus stops, then using the bike racks on them to get their bikes to their stop. This has the effect of extending the bus network, since it’s a lot easier and faster to ride a bike a mile to a bus stop than it is to walk that far. The city of Houston and to a lesser extent Harris County have done a lot to build up their bike infrastructure, and thanks to the Bayou Greenways bond issue plus the legislation to allow bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way, there’s a lot more of that to come. Metro needs to be part of the planning process so that bike trails that connect with high-frequency bus routes get priority, and to ensure that connectivity between trails and bus routes is always taken into account. Metro should also be at the table when the next phase of BCycle is being planned, to ensure that kiosks are deployed at or near bus stops and train stations whenever possible.

Speaking of the trains, while the bus system redesign was done in part to maximize the use of the new train lines, I feel like there’s a lack of information at train stations about what bus stops and bus routes are nearby. As an example, I’ve taken the train to the Wheeler station/transit center recently a couple of times to get to an appointment out near 59 and Kirby. From Wheeler, I could reasonably take either the 25 bus along Richmond, or the 65 bus along Bissonnet. The problem was that when I got out at Wheeler, I had no idea how to find a stop for either of these buses. Turns out, the 65 is right there, while the 25 (at least westbound) required walking over some pedestrian-unfriendly turf to get to a stop on Richmond just east of the downtown spur. I was able to figure it out for myself, and I’m sure the Metro trip planner could have helped, but a little signage at the station would have been very nice. A little signage at every station, showing you exactly where the nearest bus stops are and which ones go to which destinations, would be even nicer.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of what Metro and its new Board and Board Chair should focus on to improve the bus service even more. I’ll refer you back to this post by Chris Andrews from two years ago, right when the bus system makeover was first announced, for some further thoughts; pay particular attention to the bolded paragraph in his Conclusions at the end. Next we will talk about how Metro can do more to market itself.

More on severance pay and the Land Commissioner’s office

The law doesn’t apply here.

BagOfMoney

After reports of state agencies keeping former employees on the payroll after they stopped working, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other agency heads have taken heat for stretching the rules on paid “emergency leave” to keep the ex-workers on the books.

But when 26 employees were paid for an additional one to two months after they quit working for the General Land Office, Land Commissioner George P. Bush didn’t use emergency leave or any other type of paid leave established in law to compensate them. Instead, Bush’s agency treated the former employees as if they were still working, sending time sheets to the comptroller’s office indicating they had shown up to work.

The arrangement raises questions about whether the agency properly awarded and reported the paid leave, which amounted to at least $383,000 for the 26 employees let go during Bush’s “reboot” of the agency after he took office in January 2015.

An additional 14 employees signed separation agreements when they left the agency after Bush was elected in November 2014 but before he was sworn in. Bush’s predecessor, Jerry Patterson, said those terminations should also be included as part of Bush’s agency reorganization because Patterson allowed Bush and his interim team to decide who should be hired and fired during that period.

[…]

State law spells out several types of paid leave — for such events as illnesses, vacation and deaths in the family — and the comptroller’s office requires agencies to indicate what type of leave an absent employee is getting by selecting a time sheet code that matches a leave category established in law.

The General Land Office, however, didn’t select any type of leave for the 26 employees with separation agreements, and the agency has since said it left the leave field blank because there was no leave category that corresponded to their circumstance. “Because there was not a more accurate code, we used what was readily available to us, and we didn’t want to miscategorize it as something that is not accurate,” agency spokeswoman Brittany Eck said.

For Buck Wood, a former deputy comptroller and expert on Texas government and ethics law, that omission is proof that the leave wasn’t authorized by state law.

“There’s got to be an appropriation, and there’s also got to be a law behind an appropriation that authorizes it,” Wood said. “In this case, neither exists. There is no such thing as severance pay (in state law), and there’s no appropriation for it, so it’s just totally and completely illegal.”

Also, Wood said, any time sheets approved by the General Land Office that indicated employees were still working after they had left the agency might constitute falsification of government records, a felony offense.

Bush’s staff said such payments are standard practice in the business world because they are efficient. Noting that none of the 100 employees who left the agency under Bush have sued for discrimination, Eck said the agreements save taxpayer money by reducing potential litigation risks and legal fees.

See here for the background. You almost have to admire their tenacity with the “it’s totally legit in the private sector” defense. Who cares that this is the public sector, or that knowing how our money is spent and how our public offices are being run are things we are supposed to value? Not George P. Bush, that’s for sure. You won’t get that kind of clarity of vision from just anyone. Ross Ramsey has more.

Endorsement watch: For making the Heights less dry

The Chron is rooting for that petition effort to change the alcohol rules in the historic Heights.

beer

Today, sitting down in some of the restaurants in the Heights is like slipping through a wormhole into a bygone era when respectable Texas businessmen carried flasks of whiskey in their pockets. Waiters invite you to sign up for a private club – wink, wink – whose card-carrying members are allowed access to the establishment’s stash of demon rum.

Now, if a modern-day neighborhood reform movement succeeds, this quirky rule banning booze sales in the Heights may finally be amended. Something called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition has started collecting signatures on petitions calling for a referendum that could allow stores in the Heights to sell beer and wine. And it’s about time.

Nothing would change for bars or restaurants, which would still have to live with those archaic Prohibition-era restrictions. And package liquor stores would still be forbidden in the old neighborhood. The new rules would apply only to selling beer and wine that shoppers would carry out of stores and drink somewhere else.

Still, we hope this proposal for a limited rollback of Prohibition in the Heights succeeds, because this area’s booze ban has pointlessly shackled retailers and inconvenienced consumers who don’t even drink.

These antiquated restrictions on alcoholic beverage sales are a major reason why some people who live in the Heights have to drive out of their way to buy groceries. Beer and wine sales are a crucial source of income for grocers, an industry scraping by – according to data from the New York University Stern School of Business – on net profit margins of less than 2 percent. Although a comparatively small Kroger store survives in the Heights without beer and wine sales, expanding supermarket chains have conspicuously opened new stores outside the boundaries of the Heights.

See here and here for the background. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you know that as a rule I support efforts to repeal Prohibition-era anti-booze laws. This effort is no exception – I’d sign the petition and vote in favor of the ensuing referendum if I lived in the affected area. There’s no good argument against allowing a grocery store to sell beer and wine in this part of town. I can’t help but think that this referendum effort is going to walk through a minefield of legal technicalities just because it’s such an oddball situation, but I say take them as they come. I wish the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC good luck in their quest.